The obvious question is: why aren't we recycling these plastics in the UK?
Apart from the economic consequences of an export-led recycling strategy that has helped to drive so many UK household plastic recycling facilities to the wall over the past few years, one of the real problems is that we have no real understanding of what type of plastic packaging is being exported — bottles; pots, tubs and trays; film or even, as some have speculated , whether it is obligated plastic packaging waste at all.
Similarly, there is no requirement for UK recyclers to declare the types of plastic packaging or the polymers they are recycling. Consequently, we have a completely inadequate understanding of what type of infrastructure and capacity is required to recycle the various types of plastic packaging in the UK.
The real sadness is that this information could easily be obtained by ensuring that accredited recyclers and exporters are required to include this information as part of the existing accreditation process – a point that has previously been highlighted by the government's advisory committee on packaging.
In relation to exports, there is a widely held view that the UK should adopt the Scottish requirement for mandatory registration of annex VIIs as part of the PERN reporting procedure. In short, there is no need to reinvent the wheel – just to amend what already exists (in the National Packaging Waste Database).
The mood music coming from DEFRA [department of environment, food & Rural Affairs] seems to be concentrating on making plastic packaging more recyclable through a ‘modulated' PRN system. Whilst this is good and greater recyclability is to be encouraged, let us not forget the current real-world issues UK recyclers face.
Here we have a choice: to drive investment, encourage innovation in new technologies such as chemical recycling and futureproof end markets for recycled plastics by driving up material quality through robust UK collection, sorting and recycling infrastructure — or to simply rely on comparatively low cost, less regulated global markets, which may or may not exist. The Q3 data will be revealing.
In light of recent news coverage and press statements, the last thing the country needs is anything further undermining of the public's confidence in plastics recycling. Should the Q3 figures be bad, the real concern is the potential for misinterpretation. We do not need more misleading, unjustifiable headlines proclaiming that plastic is unrecyclable, which will ultimately result in more confusion and less material entering the recycling stream.